LOS ANGELES (AP)—The Southern California Trojans have a new starting quarterback and six new running backs.
But they look like the same old USC—with an even better defense than last year.
If there was any doubt, No. 4 USC declared itself a national title contender for a fourth straight season with a 28-10 victory over 19th-ranked Nebraska on Saturday night.
“We’re just getting going,” USC coach Pete Carroll said. “We’re just getting started. It’s exciting.”
It’s also scary for the rest of the country. The Trojans’ attack isn’t as potent as the one that lit up scoreboards last year. But their once-unreliable defense appears much stouter. The Trojans (2-0) limited Nebraska (2-1) to 211 yards, including 68 rushing yards on 36 carries, an average of 1.9 yards per rush.
“They were really good,” Nebraska defensive tackle Barry Cryer said. “You just can’t deny that.”
USC won for the 36th time in 37 games, the lone defeat coming to Texas in the final seconds of last January’s Rose Bowl. The Trojans have won 28 straight at home.
Making his second career start, John David Booty was 25-for-36 for 257 with no interceptions and three touchdown passes for USC in a Matt Leinart-esque performance.
All-America receiver Dwayne Jarrett, the one holdover star from last year’s record-breaking offense, caught 11 passes for 136 yards, including two touchdowns. The 6-foot-5 Jarrett often found himself being covered by defensive backs who were four or more inches shorter. He beat 5-foot-9 cornerback
“Jarrett is a monster,” Nebraska coach Bill Callahan said. “He physically dominated our guys. Our guys did what they could but he is almost unstoppable.”
Jarrett became USC’s career touchdown receptions leader with 31, breaking Mike Williams’ record of 30.
“I knew I was close to the record, but that’s not something I’m really concerned about,” Jarrett said.
Jarrett was unstoppable, but the Trojans weren’t. Although they did not turn the ball over for the second straight week, the Trojans hurt themselves with penalties—they had seven for 46 yards—and mental mistakes.
“There’s a lot of work left,” USC offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said. “It’s no secret we have a long way to go.”
The offense produced enough to win. But the bigger story on this day may have been the Trojans’ defense, which dominated the Cornhuskers.
“We wanted to come in here and run the ball,” Callahan said. “We felt we could.”
The Trojans’ decisive victory came on a day that two teams ranked ahead of them didn’t look like national title contenders. No. 2 Notre Dame absorbed a 47-21 whipping by 11th-ranked Michigan, and No. 3 Auburn struggled to a 7-3 victory over No. 6 LSU.
The Cornhuskers loomed as the first test for the retooled Trojans, who lost Leinart, Reggie Bush and LenDale White from a team that won back-to-back national titles and played for a third.
The Trojans passed the test and now begin their quest for a fifth consecutive Pac-10 title next Saturday at Arizona and a fifth straight BCS berth.
It was the third meeting between two of college football’s traditional powerhouses and the first since 1970. USC beat the Huskers 31-21 at Nebraska in 1969, and the teams played to a 21-21 tie in Los Angeles the following year.
The Cornhuskers have endured a drought since their last national title in 1995. But two easy wins over Louisiana Tech and Nicholls State following last year’s strong finish fired hopes in Lincoln.
Thousands of red-clad Huskers faithful came west to witness Nebraska’s revival. But what they saw was another convincing example of USC’s might.
“We are closing the gap with USC, but we still have a long way to go,” Nebraska coach Bill Callahan said.
“This was not a moral victory,” Callahan said. “This was a loss.”
USC may have lost Leinart and friends, but it still has an enviable depth chart, starting with Booty, a fourth-year junior from Louisiana who played like a veteran Saturday. If Booty felt any pressure in his first home game as the 2004 Heisman Trophy winners replacement, he didn’t show it.
Booty twice connected with Jarrett on critical completions. With USC leading 7-3 in the second quarter and facing a third-and-21 on the Nebraska 25, Booty avoided pressure and found Jarrett for 22 yards and a first down.
On the next play, Booty hit Steve Smith on a crossing route for a 3-yard touchdown that put the Trojans ahead 14-3.
After Nebraska cut USC’s lead to 21-10 in the fourth quarter, USC faced a second-and-20 at Nebraska’s 26. Booty hit Jarrett for 19 yards to set up tailback Chauncey Washington’s 7-yard touchdown run that made it 28-10.
“I’m really pleased, to be honest,” Booty said. “It doesn’t seem like we’re scoring quite as fast as the guys did last year, but we’re really kind of a scrappy group. The main thing is that we’re winning games. I think we’ll only get better as the season goes on.”